The new Notre Dame football coach leaned over a plank stretched across two sawhorses in the middle of a construction site that used to be the Fighting Irish's football offices. Looking more like Bob Vila's successor than Lou Holtz's, Bob Davie studied a blueprint and a piece of mahogany before deciding what style of carved lettering will adorn the sign above the outer door to the refurbished offices when they are completed later this month. "And the words NOTRE DAME should be bigger than the word FOOTBALL," added Davie authoritatively, as if deciding to go for two in the waning seconds against Michigan.
To a football coach, the word rebuilding doesn't usually involve drywall and staple guns. In South Bend in the spring of 1997, the change is so sweeping that it does. New carpeting for the floors. New furniture for the assistant coaches. New meeting rooms. A grand, new reception foyer to replace the cluttered cubbyhole that preceded it. "Everything was small and congested before; now we want the offices to convey the image of Notre Dame football," said Davie three weeks ago as he walked down a whitewashed hall toward his own enclave, the one occupied for the previous 11 years and 100 victories by Holtz.
After less than six months on the most revered job in college sports, Davie has retooled what was thought to be the self-sustaining machinery of Irish football. If change is akin to blasphemy in the tradition-filled realm of gold helmets, leprechauns and Touchdown Jesus, then Davie, a 42-year-old steel-country Pennsylvanian who spent three years as Holtz's most trusted assistant, would be the devil himself. But the Fighting Irish sense that change may be the antidote to their recent mediocrity (by Notre Dame's high standards), and Davie could be the savior.
As soon as his players returned from a Christmas vacation during which Notre Dame did not appear in a bowl game for the first time in 10 years, Davie threw them into a conditioning program that was both demanding and rollicking. It concluded in March with a four-day "Olympics," in which players competed in softball hitting, egg tossing, slam-dunking and a talent show that produced such sights as 290-pound freshman offensive tackle Rob Mowl, previously a wallflower, shimmying across the room in a wild dance. The fun and games were a simple bonding device (Holtz would sooner have eaten raw eggs than seen them tossed), and the players responded enthusiastically.
In spring drills, the precursor to August training camp, Davie streamlined practices into tight, energetic two-hour sessions. Notre Dame's dull offense was overhauled—"Coach Davie's got me thinking we're going to be putting it up like BYU," says wideout Malcolm Johnson, who will be a senior next fall—and the defense was revamped to be more aggressive, in line with those of other successful teams around the country. Davie also has charged a committee of students, faculty and administrators with spicing up the sacred Friday-night pep rallies, which had become repetitive and boring. Thus far, there are no plans to paint the Golden Dome green or rewrite the fight song. But it's still early.
There are reasons for what Davie has done. It isn't that he doesn't appreciate Notre Dame's tradition. Quite the opposite. When Texas A&M tried to lure him back as an assistant two years ago, he wouldn't leave South Bend because he had become taken with the place and its customs. But tradition alone isn't sufficient to win games.
"The Notre Dame job is a great one," says Davie, sitting behind the desk in his unfinished office, "but my nature is not to take anything for granted. I'm attacking this job like it's any other [coaching] job. We've been 23-11-1 the last three years. A lot of teams have been 23-11-1."
Davie looks out his window at progress in the $50 million renovation that began on Notre Dame Stadium long before he was hired and will be completed in time for the Fighting Irish's Sept. 6 season opener against Georgia Tech. "You look out there," Davie says. "The renovation looks good, but they've kept the look of the stadium. That's my attitude: Keep the tradition, but there's a time to say, 'Let's go here!' It all comes down to this. We need energy around here. We need life. We need to get some oxygen pumped into the program."
This sermon begs a critical question: Where has the oxygen been the past few years? More to the point: Was it sucked out of the air by Holtz? Davie is careful not to compare his plans with his predecessor's way of operating, punctuating his sentences with the Seinfeldesque qualifier, "Not that there was anything wrong with it." Yet, the first evidence that Holtz's Nov. 19 resignation would be a case of addition by subtraction came from quarterback Ron Powlus, who, during his Dec. 20 press conference to announce that he was returning for a fifth season, said that he would not have been coming back if Holtz had stayed around.
"It's a delicate situation," said Powlus recently, "but I want to be truthful. I'm proud to be able to say that I played for Coach Holtz. But I think we did everything we could do together as a coach and quarterback. If he had remained, I would have moved on. And the truth is, there's a new enthusiasm around here."